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John Wight

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Now for the Backlash

Posted: 15/08/11 10:49

Within days of the unrest that has dominated the news the inevitable right wing backlash has been unleashed. Rushed court proceedings carried out through the night doling out draconian sentences in relation to the offences committed, local authorities issuing eviction notices to the families of some of those involved, have been complemented by the high profile recruitment by the government of the America's own supercop in the shape of Bill Bratton to regale us Brits with his experience and expertise when it comes to dealing with gangs. But as current President of the Association of Police Officers Sir Hugh Orde points out, with some 400 gangs currently still in existence in and around New York, claims of expertise when it comes to dealing with gangs and gang culture on the part of the former NYPD Commissioner are deserving of, to be kind, rather more circumspection than received truth.

For the fact is that amid all the fanfare and plaudits that Bratton has received throughout his career, it has not been without controversy. Accusations that while he was at the helm of both the NYPD and the LAPD incidents of racism and brutality by police officers were all too common were made repeatedly by various community leaders and organisations. They are accusations that point to a culture of aggression under Bratton's watch that had a deleterious effect on relations between the police and the low income, predominately ethnic communities that were most impacted.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Bratton's recruitment by Cameron is how it bespeaks an emphasis on dealing with the symptoms rather than the causes of social breakdown by the present government. At a stroke this sharp turn to the right has ripped off the mask of modernism and woolly conservatism that Cameron and his advisors had painstakingly sought to cultivate prior to and just after the election in the after glow of the post coital political relationship they had forged with their new Lib-Dem coalition partners.

Not anymore. Now the true face of conservatism is being revealed to the country, with the Lib-Dems reduced like an abandoned lover to sniping from the sidelines with ever more irrelevance. Nick Clegg in particular has seen his political star plummet like the proverbial stone since the election, with the last vestige of credibility he may have enjoyed at one time disappearing into the ether on the vapour trails of his principles and influence. Indeed, increasingly it has fallen to Simon Hughes to provide what little Lib-Dem influence remains in the nation's political discourse, with his recent warning of the dangers of the government's commitment to knee-jerk reactions to the current crisis a welcome if rather hollow attempt at meaningful intervention.

When it comes to the issue of gangs and gang culture, evidence of the chasm in understanding that exists between those at the bottom of society and policymakers and the mainstream commentariat could not be clearer. Gangs reflect a need for human solidarity that has been denied young people who are unlucky enough to be born into that layer of society excluded from the mainstream. Disenfranchised, made to feel worthless and lacking life chances that now more than ever are governed not by ability and work ethic but family connections, the school you go to more than what you achieve at school, and expectations inculcated by parents and an environment already abandoned as beyond the pale by economies in the West that are models of socialism for the rich and the free market for the poor, gangs fill the vacuum left as a consequence.

In this regard the words of Gavin Poole, Executive Director of the UK's Centre for Social Justice, spoken in the aftermath of the riots, are words that the government and others in position of power ignore at the peril of us all: "We will find a high majority of these young people have failed in schools where truancy is normal, behaviour is often disruptive and boundaries are not established. Many of them face a life on benefits in ghettos scarred by poor housing and street gangs, completely devoid of aspiration. In such communities, they have been written off by society repeatedly."

These are the actions of people who live in chaos, hopelessness and poverty. What they are doing is criminal, completely wrong and must be punished. But it is not entirely random; they believe they have nothing to lose and no one to answer to. Some even consider it normal.

Yes, we need political leadership and a debate about policing techniques. But when the violence ends, we need deep rooted social reform which understands that a section of Britain is badly broken and needs to be rebuilt."

Despite such salutary words of advice, the reaction of the Tories and their supporters in the pages of the right wing press to the wave of social unrest just passed is contained in the redoubtable words of John Major, "condemn more and understand less".

While this approach may well issue a measure of comfort to those outraged at the scenes of mayhem that dominated our television screens last week, their lasting impact will be the dangerous precedent they set when it comes to policing and law and order matters in future. With accusations from some quarters being levelled at the Met Police of timidity and a less than vigorous treatment of the rioters at the beginning of these events, the likelihood of a return to the aggressive approach people had become accustomed engaged in their right to peaceful demonstration over recent years looms large. Of course it is hard to say at this point if the public recruitment of Bill Bratton by Cameron to advise on these matters was designed in part with the objective of embarrassing the Met hierarchy, but that has and will be the inevitable consequence of his appointment.

Perhaps the most telling conclusion to be drawn from both the riots and the government's reaction to them is that the playing fields of Eton are the last place where an understanding of society and the impact of inequality, poverty and the social exclusion that inevitably results can be reached.